By Laurent Cohen | 13/08/2009
According to Lessing, Jewish self-hatred stems from two chief sources: Jewish internalization of antisemitism and the Jews' ethical-megalomaniac aspiration to redeem the world. The first person to be discussed here, Karl Marx, fits this diagnosis perfectly; but the second, Franz Kafka, proves that the soul can take even more mysterious paths…
Since he was a child, Karl Marx often reflected on apocalyptic visions. In his room, the young Marx would observe humanity as a whole, judge it and divide it up into the guilty and their victims. He pledged a thousand vengeances on the former and a real, earthy paradise to the latter. Marx wrote a new Gospel and on the day of his Revelation, the earth shook. Isaiah Berlin, one of the leading liberal philosophers of the twentieth century and an important Marxologist, quite rightly wrote about Karl Marx that he was “a single-minded and solitary worker [...] who with his pen caused a greater transformation in the world than heads of state and soldiers and men of action.”
Seemingly, everything that could be said about Marx has already been said. Everything and its opposite. From 1917 on, after his ideological heirs declared in his name the advent of official salvation under Soviet rule, millions of human beings discovered a new age: a period of political and religious persecution, the gulag civilization, barbed-wire fences, the lie and antisemitism as a social norm. Basic honesty requires all intelligent observers to admit that this failure of totalitarianism did not spring out of thin air. With the exception of the last remaining Communists, who carry on as a nostalgic sect, the world has realized that the roots of the Communist nightmare had already been planted within Marx himself, from the outset of his conceptual journey.
The Jewish people and its God were the first targets of Karl Marx's war. This truth has been obscured and distorted. But no great effort was needed to suppress it because it was difficult to accept that the great champion of human liberation in fact expressed himself in a style reminiscent of Hitler's. It might even be said that Soviet antisemitism was only a partial realization of Marx's extremist views. With the exception of Stalin in his final years, Marx's successors were not perfectly faithful to him in this matter. Marx spoke of the demise of Jewish existence, going so far as to state that the salvation of the world was dependent on the annihilation of Judaism. At a very early stage, he already believed that the world was suffering from nefarious “Judaization,” to which an urgent solution must be found. Let it be noted that he never repudiated these views. On the contrary, the messiah of the revolutionaries systematically despised the Jews and their religion until his dying breath.
Marx was well aware of the fact that he had been born a Jew. Both of his grandfathers and one of his uncles were rabbis and Torah scholars. Like many European Jews during this period, his father knew that only conversion to Christianity could open the ghetto gates for him. In 1817, Hershel Marx became Heinrich Marx, and in 1924, when Karl was seven years old, his father converted to Christianity. Marx's mother, who at first insisted on maintaining her Jewish identity, followed suit some time later.
Marx wrote his most important article on the Jews, “On the Jewish Question,” while living in France. Published in the Annales Franco-Allemandes in March of 1844, this was no minor essay or draft, but rather
“The Jews are to blame because they have clung to their nationality and have resisted the movements and changes of history. [...] They were oppressed because they first pressed by placing themselves against the wheel of history.”
As a fanatical Hegelian, Bauer considered Jewish life to be an anachronistic insult, an ineradicable fossil. Rather than being praiseworthy, in his eyes the tenacity of Jewish survival was a rejection of human progress. The Jewish people, said Bauer, is manifestly anti-historical (It is intriguing that for Franz Rosenzweig, this very same characteristic represents the Jews' messianic advantage…). This is how Bauer explained what enabled the Jews to survive: They “sprinkle” themselves “in the cracks and crevices of our national abode.” Marx lashed out against these arguments: Bauer, he argued, did not understand the principle that emancipation is needed for the entire world. However, this process of salvation can occur only when society liberates itself of Judaism and its servants – no less and no more.
Before discussing certain aspects of Marx's response to Bauer, a number of comments are called for: (1) In his article “On the Jewish Question,” Marx stoops to the use of profanity and imprecations, adopting a typically antisemitic lexicon. (2) The assertion that “On the Jewish Question” was the product of momentary madness, that it should be viewed as separate from the “pure” Marxist thought that would come later should be rejected out of hand. This claim is completely unfounded in view of the fact that during the same period, Marx had already established his analysis regarding the concept of spiritual enslavement and the need to restore social coherence. These are of course the two basic pillars of his entire philosophy. Beyond this, Marxists are inclined to conceal the problematic parts of Marx's writings, those that evince his abiding hatred for Jews. In 1879, for example, he complained about “the lice and the Jews,” he attacked “the Jews of the stock market” and portrayed the Jews as barbarians. In the 1850s, in order to earn a few pennies, he wrote political articles for the New York Daily Tribune. There one can find statements such as, “If the Jews are so powerful, then the time has come to unmask their true face and condemn their organizations.” (3) Marx's crude style underscores his weakness: In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx simply stops thinking. He completely abandons all scientific thought. His ideas are based on libels and antisemitic superstitions that he accepts as axiomatic and upon which he bases and constructs his article. Robert Misrahi, a philosopher and commentator on Marx, writes,
“In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx does not act rationally [...] This essay contains no analysis, no sociological comparison, no demographic clues, no numbers, no tables, not even a hypothesis or discussion: only dogmatic claims [...] The world converted to Judaism and all the suffering and conflicts of the world are the result of the fact that it is almost entirely Jewish. What we see here is an extreme antisemitic madness: The evil in the world is the Judaism in the world, or the world as Judaism.”
We can see that in Marx's eyes, the “Jew” is in fact a diabolical alien, an imaginary figure who has nothing to do with reality. In his essay, Marx portrays the Jew as the ontological source of evil. Through the love of materialism, the slavery of humans and the growth of Christianity (which he views as the victory of Judaism!), evil spreads throughout the world and pollutes it.
“Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew. What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. An organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for huckstering, and therefore the possibility of huckstering, would make the Jew impossible. His religious consciousness would be dissipated like a thin haze in the real, vital air of society. [...] What, in itself, was the basis of the Jewish religion? Practical need, egoism. The monotheism of the Jew, therefore, is in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism which makes even the lavatory an object of divine law. [...] Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. [...] The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange. [...] The relation between man and woman, etc., becomes an object of trade! The woman is bought and sold. The chimerical nationality of the Jew is the nationality of the merchant, of the man of money in general. The groundless law of the Jew is only a religious caricature of groundless morality. [...] Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism – huckstering and its preconditions – the Jew will have become impossible.”
Marx the Jew had not the slightest doubt that eradicating the Jew and his identity represented the practical phase of salvation. Even when he targeted the church, he continued to fight against the Jew behind the cross. In his later writings, readers can look behind the key words – fraud, trade, egoism, profits, bourgeoisie, religion – for the eternal Jew of the antisemitic tradition. During the most terrible times in the Soviet Union, the Kremlin used quotes from the venerable father himself to enable the inclusion of antisemitism in their ideology and even in their official doctrine. The efforts of the Marxist dinosaurs to bury this text were in vain. From the late 1970s on, Holocaust deniers, new revolutionaries, neo-pagan fascists and the entire global “red-brown” movement permanently fixed Marx's status in the antisemitic lexicon.
Marx's influence on the State of Israel was enormous. He is present in the intellectual sources of political Zionism. Ber Borochov endeavored to create a synthesis between Marx and Zionism. Entire factions of the Hashomer Hatza'ir movement viewed him as a modern-day prophet. But Israelis have not yet opened up the most painful subject for discussion: The messiah of the modern progressives also espoused the eradication of Judaism, although he himself was a Jew. These facts are momentous, and also tragic. They lead us to the conclusion that what Marx the Jew wanted was to disappear and draw the entire universe into his own personal identity conflict.
In 1966, Arnold Künzli, a Swiss psychoanalyst, wrote an 800-page book about Karl Marx in which he analyzed his personality from the perspective of his Jewish self-hatred. And this is how Léon Poliakov, the great historian of antisemitism, describes what drove Marx:
“But the descendent of a line of rabbis had a second [...] more secret motive [...] dictated by a different passion. By identifying Judaism with this society, by magically transforming all other Jews into moneygrubbers, was this penniless Jew, converted at the age of seven, not unconsciously trying to stress his distance from Judaism, to produce his certificate of non-Jewishness, to show an alibi for which, particularly at this time, so many of his co-religionists were yearning in vain?”
Kafka and Marx converge on two main points. First, Kafka's writings, like Marx's, became universally influential. Unlike Marx, Kafka engaged in the spiritual effort involved in finding an answer to his Judaism. His often boundless fury was consistently directed at the assimilated Jewish society of the early twentieth century. In face of the false education he received in the name of Judaism and against the atmosphere that surrounded him, an atmosphere void of all inner content, Kafka dreamed of finding the truths of his identity, and spent his life in search of them. In the intellectual circles of Prague, Berlin and Vienna, Kafka saw a Judaism that had lost all justification for its existence, a moribund Judaism that was clinically dead. He viewed the assimilated Jew as a “diseased” creature living on borrowed time, but was at the same time completely aware that he himself was a product of that very same assimilation. This is the source of his prodigious self-hatred.
Kafka complained about the absence of a land, of tradition, law, language and community. He hovered in the world, as he put it, due to “the absence of any Jewish terra firma under my feet.” Deep inside, he fought against the “Western Jew” afflicted with amnesia, doomed to experience all the absurdities in the world. In one of his letters to Milena, Kafka wrote:
“We both know, after all, enough typical examples of Western Jews. I am as far as I know the most typical Western Jew. Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and the future, but the past too. This means, expressed with exaggeration, that not one calm second is granted me, nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and the future, but the past too – something after all which perhaps every human being has inherited, this too must be earned. It is perhaps the hardest work: When the earth turns to the right – I don't know if it really does – I have no choice but to turn myself to the left in order to catch up with the past.”
Kafka lacked a past and lacked roots, and in a reversal of the Mishnaic aphorism, knew not from whence he came and where he was going. Two years before his death, on January 22, 1922, he recorded in his diary:
“Without forbears, without marriage, without heirs, but with a fierce longing for forbears, marriage and heirs. They all of them stretch out their hands to me: forbears, marriage and heirs, but too far away for me.”
Kafka's literary characters are so lacking in essence that they have no name. They become objects, and even animals. In his book, “Metamorphosis,” Samsa turns into a cockroach. From this point forward, Kafka invents his metaphorical zoology: Western Jews for him turn into dogs, monkeys, squirrels, moles. When portraying Jews that refuse to recognize the failure of the emancipation, he has no qualms about making some very harsh comparisons.
“Throughout the afternoon hours, I walk the alleyways, immersing myself and wallowing in the antisemitic hatred. Pariah race is the epithet for Jews I have been hearing lately. Is this something that is self-evident, to get up and abandon the place where one is so despised? [...] The courage to remain here despite everything is akin to acting like a cockroach that refuses to be driven from the bathroom.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, when the study of Kafka in Europe and the United States underwent a process of “liberalization,” Kafka was viewed as a classic antisemitic Jew. Since then, new interpretations have taken
Like with Marx, Kafka's self-loathing can be interpreted as a call for a “final solution” for the Western Jew. His “Letters to Milena” contains a section that might be described as a mad Hitlerian vision. In these lines, written decades before the horrific gas chambers came into existence, Kafka imagines a monstrous antisemitic extermination with himself in the role of executioner:
“At times, I would like to stuff them all, simply as Jews (myself included), into, say, the drawer of the laundry chest. Next I'd wait, open the drawer a little to see if they've suffocated, and if not, shut the drawer again and keep doing this to the end.”
In contrast to the hated figure of the Western Jew, Kafka posed an ideal Jew: the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jew that lived the wisdom of Hassidism and the Kabbalah. Unlike the assimilated Jews that struggled in vain to socially adapt, this perfect Jew rose above the literary or social norms dictated by the non-Jews. Kafka evolved his fantasy of the “total Jew” after he discovered the world of Yiddish. Kafka first encountered actors of the Yiddish theater in 1911, when he was 28 years old, while they were on a theatrical tour of Prague. For him they symbolized everything that he could not be: actors that lived bohemian lives of reckless abandon, experienced their own culture fully, and moreover, spoke a Jewish language. As a Jew who wrote in German, Kafka viewed himself as a deceiver, thief and liar. He perceived the very use of the German language as wrong. Unlike him, the Yiddish actors did not suffer from a split personality: They were natural, intense Jewish artists. The troupe was led by Isaac Löwy, a melancholy actor and drug addict, whose art fascinated Kafka. Löwy's cultural world drew directly on the Baal Shem Tov, Bialik and Peretz. Kafka learned about Judaism from him and became his biographer (see “The Blue Octavo Notebooks”). From 1911 on, Jewish subjects suddenly crop up in Kafka's writing. He diligently copied Hassidic stories and legends into his notebooks. The Yiddish theater filled dozens of pages, in which he recounted his first revelation regarding his Jewish identity:
“Certain songs, the expression judische kinderlach [Jewish children], that woman who – just because of the fact of her being Jewish – draws us spectators – just because of the fact that we are Jews devoid of passion and curiosity about Christians – to the stage and to her – all these sent chills down my spine.”
Kafka, in fact, began his journey towards Judaism through lessons, books and learning. In the last year of his life, he registered to study at the Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin.
In 1917, following the Balfour Declaration, Kafka began to take an interest in Zionism. But rather than turn to political activity, he shut himself in his room with a Hebrew-German dictionary and began to learn Hebrew. He experienced Hebrew as a form of emotional therapy. Puah Ben-Tovim, his last Hebrew teacher, recounted: “It almost seemed as if he thought of those lessons as a kind of miracle cure.” When confronting the holy tongue (and when observing the figures of Moses, Abraham, Adam), Kafka felt that he was standing in the doorway of a Jewish home, that which he so yearned to reach. It should be recalled that years earlier, he blamed the use of German (rather than Hebrew) for the family drama that informed his life:
“Yesterday it occurred to me that I did not always love my mother as she deserved and as I could, only because the German language prevented it. The Jewish mother is no Mutter, and to call her Mutter makes her a little comic (not to herself, because we are in Germany). We give a Jewish woman the name of a German mother, but forget the contradiction that sinks into the emotions so much the more heavily. Mutter is peculiarly German for the Jew; it unconsciously contains, together with the Christian splendor, Christian coldness also. The Jewish woman who is called Mutter therefore becomes not only comic, but strange… I believe that it is only the memories of the ghetto that still preserve the Jewish family, for the word Vater too is far from meaning the Jewish father.”
The question remains: If Kafka became so closely drawn to his Judaism, is there any point in further discussion about his “self-hatred?” The answer is yes. His letters, stories and personal diaries bear witness to the fact that he viewed himself as a person without any hope of salvation. He unremittingly despised the fatal flaw that the “exile of the soul” had imprinted on him. “The fear of life,” the camouflage, the schism – all these characteristics were etched into his spirit. Let us conclude by noting that Kafka never deluded himself. He summed up his effort to study Judaism and thereby acquire for himself a new identity quite pessimistically: “It is like chasing a dream. How can one find outside that which should come from the inside?” He concludes on a more mystical note: “I am still a slave in Egypt. I have not yet crossed the Red Sea.”
Where Jewish history is concerned, and even more so in the historiosophy that explains how Jews interpreted and understood themselves, there is far too little discussion of the existence of an immanent negative factor, that which is defined in Lessing's writings as “the refusal to be a Jew.” In terms borrowed from the world of psychoanalysis, we might say that alongside its vital, constructive strengths, since its inception, the Jewish people has also been plagued by a death instinct, which often prevails, playing a crucial role in Jewish fate.
Uri Zvi Greenberg discussed that persistent inner resistance in scathing terms. He spoke of a “curse,” of a “sin that is passed down from one generation to another,” of “an evil in the face of which even madness despairs,” of “cruelty.” He further asked if the source of all these things is not God Himself. Israel Zangwill observed this phenomenon and with his typically lethal irony pondered if all of Jewish history was not doomed to unfold in wake of the downfalls and triumphs Jews bring upon themselves.
The refusal to be Jewish and its initial consequence, self-hatred, begins with the Jews. It can be viewed as an engine, an inherent tendency of the national self. Dathan and Abiram, Korah's partners in the mutiny against Moses, are customarily noted as the archetypical symbol of the Jews' inner resistance to the “Israeli project.” But we must not forget that the Bible is replete with conflicts of exactly this kind. God Himself, so it seems, is stunned by His people's recalcitrant determination. He tells Ezekiel, “But the house of Israel will not consent to hearken unto thee; for they consent not to hearken unto Me; for all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and of a stiff heart (Ezekiel 3: 7). During the time of Samuel, the people of Israel ask him to officially resign: “And they said unto him: ‘Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.' But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: ‘Give us a king to judge us'” (Samuel I 8: 5-6).
In my book on King David in light of the writings of the sages, I demonstrated the extent to which the people of Israel, with their refusal of a divine kingdom and preference for a human monarch, sacrificed the privilege they were given: to be liberated from mediocrity, and beyond that, from the injustice that is intrinsically part of every political project by definition. According to Abravanel, what the people of Israel did “when they decided that they would have a king is what engendered three thousand years of grief, what brought about the destruction and exile.” As for the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Talmud acquits the nations of the world and places all the blame on the Jews: Its idolatry and baseless hatred is once again evidence of its refusal to become the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In order to “prove” how potent the self-destruction in the family story of the Jews is, the Midrash maintains that Nebuchadrezzar was of Hebrew extraction, a scion of the dynasty of King Solomon. The Midrash's intent here is clear: Solomon built and his descendant destroyed.
Post-Biblical history recognizes at least three individuals whose refusal to accept their own Judaism changed the world: Paul, Spinoza and Marx. As the true founder of Christianity, Paul fought against his Jewish surroundings, but at the same time, tried to uproot everything he absorbed from it: Jewish tradition and his affinity to the Pharasees. Jacob Taubes, a philosopher and historian of Judaism, wrote in his book, “The Political Theology of Paul” that Paul's' anti-halachic criticism of the rabbis is directed not only at them, but also at himself, as a Jew. Or in other words, entire layers of Christianity are the product of Paul's inner theological conflict, and his refusal to be Jewish. For two thousand years, the Church drew all its antisemitism from the writings attributed to Saul of Tarsus – Paul. Numerous Christian intellectuals have tried to amend the Church's negative perception of the Jews. However, in doing so, they encounter a considerable irony: Such a change means that they must neutralize the anti-Jewish state of mind that Paul bequeathed to them.
The “refusal to be Jewish” did not disappear during the time of the exile; it turned into a norm of sorts, one that became almost “legitimate”: Every generation had its recalcitrant Jews, those that crossed over to the other side. Today, some believe that the greatness of the Jews lies in this very characteristic: the constant temptation to nullify oneself as a Jew, the ability to refuse to accept one's fate, and thereby rise up against and trample all the codes of one's community. Emil Cioran, the antisemitic philosopher who later became philosemitic, was deeply fascinated by Jews that converted to Christianity:
“Those two magnificent Jewish women – Edith Stein and Simone Weil. I love their thirst, their toughness towards themselves and their ability to incisively self-criticize. [...] My great curiosity about Jews and about everything Jewish is due to their being exceptional cases, all of them. Simone Weil, Kafka. Figures from another world. They alone are mysterious. Non-Jews are too predictable.”
It is notable that Simone Weil, whom Cioran enumerated among those he considered “ideal Jews,” was an obsessively antisemitic Jewish philosopher, even during the period of the Nazis; and Edith Stein was a Jewish philosopher, who after an encounter with Christianity abandoned her identity, but died as a Jew just the same. It was in early August 1942 in Auschwitz.